“Men on Boats” delivers timely gender norms commentary

Written By Erin Yudt, Editor Elect

This past weekend the play “Men on Boats” was put on at the playhouse. As with most shows I go to see, I knew nothing about this play before going to see it; I simply thought the title was funny. The show proved to be funny as well, but also incredibly important to see now amid trans eradication.

Four boats. Ten men. One great canyon. “Men on Boats” is the true(ish) history of an 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of insane yet loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River. But, there’s a catch. There is not a single man in the cast, at least not according to the strict anatomical definition, which leads to what I gathered as the point of the play — to question masculinity and challenge gender norms while opening people up to the possibility of blurring the lines between male and female. 

Long before this play, dating all the way back to Shakespearean times, men played female characters in all kinds of stage performances. While this was because women were not allowed to enter the workspace, I think it is very important to acknowledge that a woman or female presenting person playing a man today is hardly at all different. Actors are actors for a reason; they can play all different kinds of roles, including ones that might not be of their gender. I think “Men on Boats” shows the great versatility of actors and comments on society today.

The script of the play is naturally very comedic, pulling from the artificial constructs of masculinity at the time of the 19th century, but never cutesy or over the top. The plot is very easy to follow as the men bond, joke and argue like any other group traveling together. The stakes are very high when food runs low and several men come close to death, even causing four to quit the journey because of the danger they experienced. The set design was simple; in fact, there was only one real boat on the stage, but I loved the border around the stage, which had actual water that the actors would splash in to give the front rows more of an immersive experience. I was also fond of the obvious modern elements like the chef’s “kiss the cook” apron, which helps remind the audience that while the story is set long ago, there are important themes that relate to today.

The only complaint I had was that the ending was a little confusing. The six men left do make it to the Grand Canyon and find a settler there. The settler asks about the leader of the exploration and ignores the other men. Three people in lab coats then come out to write the information down. I believe that it was to show how the leaders of these journeys are the only ones remembered, written about, and become the figures we learn about in history, which does tend to be true. I think it also goes to show that it truly does not matter what gender the people were that made this journey, as the settler still only cared about the leader, whoever was “the best.” 

All in all, “Men on Boats” was way more than just a story about men on boats. It is the story of today; how we should not care about how others identify and express themselves, how all people are equal and should be treated as such.